Thunder/Spurs Game 2: The rise of Westbrook, Harden

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I said going into this series Russell Westbrook was the key to Oklahoma City’s chances against the Spurs — he needs to attack off the pick-and-roll, get into the lane and finish. Or kick it out. But he needs to disrupt the Spurs defense and put a lot of points on the board in the half court.

James Harden has the same burden on him — he should be the guy setting up plays for the Thunder in the half court late in games. Yet Harden only had one possession where he controlled the ball in the last 10 minutes of Game 1 and that is just bad execution by the Thunder. Harden is their best playmaker.

Westbrook and Harden — more than Kevin Durant — are the keys to the Thunder getting the Game 2 win Tuesday and evening the Western Conference finals at a game a piece.

What Thunder fans learned the hard way in Game 1 is that the Spurs are a relentless offense — they keep attacking, keep pressuring, keep looking for lineups that work then they exploit it. In Game 1 the Spurs had success by going small in the fourth quarter, which allowed them to get their points in the paint thanks to a matchup that favored them. They had Manu Ginobili with 26 points, Tony Parker with 18 and they had balance.

There was a logical adjustment to the small ball for Scott Brooks — Serge Ibaka. But he didn’t go there. And he regrets it, as reported by the Expres-News.

“Every decision you make, if it doesn’t work out, you always say, ‘Why did you do that?’” Brooks said. “I’m with you on that. I wish I would have played Serge last night.”

The problem is if Ibaka does play the disciplined spurs will just move on to the next option that works. It is what they do.

Which is why the Thunder can’t have their offense go stagnant as it did in the fourth quarter of Game 1. Which brings us back to Westbrook and Harden.

Late in the game, Harden needs to be the playmaker for the Thunder. The ball needs to be in his hands because when it is Durant still gets his but so does everyone else. In Game 1 Durant was the guy with the ball, and the combination of good defense from Stephen Jackson and little off-ball movement stalled out the Thunder attack. It opened the door and Ginobili pulled the Spurs through it.

On the pick-and-roll, Westbrook simply cannot settle — he has to attack and get into the teeth of the defense. The same is true of Durant. In Game 1 the Thunder ball handler on the pick-and-roll hit just 10-of-28 shots, and that’s not good enough in this series. They are not playing the Lakers with Andrew Bynum’s long arms back there anymore, the Spurs don’t have that kind of back line. OKC has to get its points inside.

All this does not mean OKC should just try and run on the Spurs — San Antonio is more efficient in transition than the Thunder. Over the course of the season it’s true, and if this just because an up-and-down battle it doesn’t really favor the Thunder. There were 97 possessions last game, the Spurs won. As was pointed out in one Spurs preview, San Antonio has won 21 games in a row when the pace is above 94.

It’s not about just being fast, it’s about being smart.

And it’s about Westbrook and Harden.

James Harden throws alley-oop to Chris Paul, pair puts on show at Houston charity event

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What chemistry problem?

There are legitimate questions about how Chris Paul and James Harden will share the backcourt and ball with the Rockets, but none of those were on display on Sunday. That’s when CP3 joined his new teammate in Harden’s charity game (raising money for Harden’s charity, which helps children from single-family homes get a higher education), a kind of pro-am with some names thrown in to draw a crowd.

Harden and CP3 put on a show for the fans.

This is a charity event, not every team is going to defend like this or the Phoenix Suns. It’s going to be harder when the games matter.

But the Rockets are going to be entertaining to watch this season. No doubt.

Tampering is common in the NBA, but proving it is very difficult

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Want proof there is tampering in the NBA: Free agency starts on July 1 at midnight Eastern every year, and every year a number of new contracts for players with new teams are announced at 12:01 a.m. There is no way that a complicated NBA contract — even one where the two sides are both interested and will agree quickly on the price — is negotiated faster than it takes to get an In-N-Out Burger (or Five Guys burger, if you prefer the inferior).

Those deals are announced that fast because everything’s already been agreed to through back channels. Same with meetings when a major (or even mediocre) free agent starts talking to teams on July 1. Yet, the NBA rarely investigates, and even more rarely punishes a team for tampering. Why? Because it’s very difficult to prove.

The Lakers are being investigated for tampering with Paul George while he was under contract to the Indiana Pacers, an investigation reportedly started at the request of Pacers’ owner Herb Simon. Teams are not allowed to recruit or entice players under contract. The Lakers have denied any wrongdoing. Lakers president Magic Johnson went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and, with a wink, joked about what he’d tell George if they met this summer, and that ticked Simon off. The Pacers had to trade George, and because everyone around the league knows he more likely than not is a Laker next summer (long before Magic went on TV), his trade value was diminished. The Pacers got back Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him the day before free agency opened (although there may have been better offers on the table, and the choice and timing were odd). The Pacers think if there is an agreement in place between the Lakers and George that would have driven down the trade market (because he was a one-year rental, that market was already depressed).

Good luck proving tampering. Unless Magic did something stupid like text George directly, it will be almost impossible to prove.

NBA agents and front offices know how to avoid tampering using “back channels” — not unlike how governments who are public enemies still communicate. Someone, a couple of people removed from the agent/GM, can talk with someone a couple of people removed from the other side and set something up that gets brought back and agreed to. Or, an agent can have one of his other players do some of the work for him — players recruit each other all the time on social media (and off it), and the league doesn’t see that as tampering, unless specifically ordered by a GM/owner. James Harden recruited Chris PaulDraymond Green and other Warriors recruited Kevin Durant, and the league shrugged, but GM Bob Myers could not have done that (or directed the players to do that… again, good luck proving it if you think he did).

There are a few reasons it will be hard to prove the Lakers did anything. First, the Lakers’ GM Rob Pelinka is a former agent and knows how to work the system — he’s not getting caught. Look what another agent told Kevin O’Connor at The Ringer.

“Pelinka for sure knows how to tamper without getting caught,” one agent told me. “Pelinka will do whatever it takes to get players. Magic could easily have done something dumb and got caught for it, though.”

To prove tampering, Magic needs to have left a “paper trail,” which more accurately is a digital trail of texts or emails. But even that can get tricky. If Magic was texting with George’s agent Aaron Mintz that alone proves nothing, he also represents Julius Randle on the Lakers and D'Angelo Russell, who the Lakers traded a week before the George trade. It will take an email or text specifically talking about George for the Lakers to get in trouble, and Magic is smarter than that. Well, we think he is.

The bottom line is tampering is common and almost impossible to prove. Unless Magic screwed up, it will be unprovable here. Maybe the Pacers made their point, maybe Simon feels better, but it’s hard to see how this is going to be tampering.

Joakim Noah talks of “bounce back” year for himself, Knicks

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In a season of disappointments in New York, none was bigger than Joakim Noah.

There was plenty of scoffing around the league in the summer of 2016 when Phil Jackson signed the oft-injured, already declining Noah to a four-year, $72 million contract that was seen as one of the worst of a summer (and it was an ugly summer for contracts). He only played in 46 games, averaging 5.5 points on 49 percent shooting, plus 8.8 rebounds a game in those (and basically being averaged on offense and a step slow defensively). He missed time with a rotator cuff surgery and got a 20-game suspension for testing positive for Androgen (he has 13 of those games left and can’t play until Nov. 13).

Noah realizes how poorly last season went he told the “Truth Barrel’’ podcast, doesn’t think Jackson deserves all the blame, and said his goal is to make it up this season (hat tip The New York Post for the transcription).

“It’s tough, man, because I got a lot of love and respect for Phil,’’ Noah said. “He gave me an opportunity to play back home. Somebody I read all his books as a kid. I was just a big fan and still am. I have a lot of respect for him. It didn’t work out. That sucks. It’s something I have to live with. He believed in me, and I kind of let him down. That’s frustrating. He got a lot of blame that it was his fault. But we didn’t lose all those games because of Phil Jackson…

“I went through a lot of adversity,’’ Noah said. “You go through injuries. I lost my confidence this year. It’s about bouncing back and showing who I am through these tough times. It can really show what you’re made of.”

This is the only attitude Noah should have — look forward, get healthy, and look to right his wrongs next season.

Once he finishes his suspension, Noah likely will come off the bench behind Willy Hernangomez. (The Knicks should spend more time with Kristaps Porzingis at the five, but that’s another discussion.) Noah is going to get his chances, but nothing he has shown the past few seasons should have Knicks’ fans expecting a return to form. Noah has been an average to below-average player for a couple of seasons, he’s not moving the same way, and he’s not getting younger.

Noah can still have a positive impact on this team, he has a role to play, but it has to start with him getting back on the court.

Add Milos Teodosic to long list of stars missing EuroBasket

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The last Olympics in Rio saw a long list of NBA players sitting it out, either due to injuries, concerns about Zika virus, a serious dislike of açaí berries or just choosing to do something else with their time.

Now it looks like EuroBasket is suffering the same fate.

The latest name to come up is Milos Teodosic, who signed this summer with the Clippers, could never get healthy, and is out for Serbia. He joins a long list — Sportando put together a list of NBA players and stars who are out.

More than just one someone is missing, guys such as Ivica Zubac, Mario Hezonja, Paul Zipster, and others are out as well.

Spain, led by Pau Gasol, remain the heavy favorites to win EuroBasket 2017, with Serbia, France, and Lithuania potential contenders. There may be a lot of players missing, but there is still a lot of talent, and when guys are playing for national pride there is plenty of emotion and fire as well.